Chivalry and Power

Scott Farrell Comments:

Today, chivalry is routinely equated with demure attitudes and subservient actions. But the knightly warriors of medieval Europe who created the Code of Chivalry were neither demure nor subservient — yet many of them were very chivalrous. In the 21st century we assume that a person (an athlete, an executive, a politician or a student) must choose between honorable behavior and competitive drive. Can the ideals of the Code of Chivalry and the deliberate pursuit of “power” exist in concert? Ms. Chennault, herself a successful entrepreneur, provides a fascinating look at that question.

Does Ambition Negate the Knightly Ideal?

Chivalry and power — must you give up one to have the other? Must the middle manager set aside honor when she gets the big promotion? Must the idealistic college athlete suppress his sense of fair play when he becomes a pro quarterback? Does the hometown politician have to abandon personal integrity when she is elected to a seat in the state senate?

Many people raise an eyebrow at the thought of a “knight in shining armor” being ambitious or deliberately seeking personal power. Perhaps that’s why we’re running into so many ethical problems in our world: There are too many people who think that being chivalrous means being a pushover.

Generally, I sum up “chivalry” as having great power, but behaving as if you don’t. You may have the physical ability or political authority to be able to take something you want by force, but instead you buy it, ask for it or do without it. You may have the power or prestige to be arrogant and conceited, but instead you speak mildly and courteously. The list goes on.

The part of chivalry that is too often overlooked is the cause of so many ethical dilemmas: the acquisition of power. Someone who seeks to be chivalrous must also seek to be powerful, because chivalry is the act of voluntarily withholding the wrongful, selfish or destructive application of that power. A weakling can be kind and courteous, but a weakling cannot be chivalrous.

You note here that this sort of “strength” is not necessarily physical strength. Words, willpower, moral authority and superior education can all represent strength in a person who is not physically strong. In the story of True Grit, the fastidious lawyer J. Noble Daggett can be chivalrous by protecting the farmers against the railroad, even though the land-grabbing railroad baron could pay him more for his services. Such an act is truly a chivalrous use of power — and in that respect, a physically diminutive individual is the equal in chivalry to the mighty and valiant Rooster Cogburn.

Chivalry is based, in some manner, on strength, on power. Therefore since the demonstration of the attributes of chivalry is predicated on the existence of power, the attempt to gain power is a legitimate aspect of chivalry. The athlete-in-training, the politician on the campaign trail, the student working in the lab — all are striving toward a sort of power, and all will have the opportunity to put that power to use in a chivalrous way.

Most often, when we remark on a lack of chivalry in the people around us, we refer to someone who has power, but abuses it. A powerful person who is arrogant and takes whatever he or she wants is the visible antithesis of the chivalric ideal. That person is the embodiment of the bully — the opposite of a knight in shining armor.

But, looking around us, much more common is the individual who gives lip-service to the ideals of chivalry, but who does not bestir him- or herself to gain any level of accomplishment from which to either demonstrate the knightly virtues, or fail the test and be cast into the ranks of opportunism. The clerk in a dead-end job who plans to go back to school “someday,” the once-talented high-school athlete who spends Sunday afternoons on the couch and complains about the working mom who coaches his daughter’s softball team, the discontented homeowner whose response to every community problem is, “Someone ought to pass a law … ” Nothing ventured, nothing lost.

A scrawny, myopic nerd who spends his free time programming shareware to defeat the latest virus is acting within the best tradition of chivalry. A beautiful woman who has the ability to drip acid sarcasm from her tongue, yet who consoles a co-worker whose love life has just collapsed, who makes him laugh and gives him confidence to go on, is a knight in shining armor. A business owner who puts part of his profits to use for charitable enterprises rather than upgrading his office equipment as a hollow write-off is as much of a chivalrous hero as the paladins of Charlemagne.

The important factor here is that all of these examples had to make the deliberate choice to acquire and maintain power of some kind. The programmer wasn’t born knowing how to program. Even as an athlete must run and lift weights, a soldier must train with his weapons and a ruler must campaign for office, so must the computer programmer spend nights studying code and writing obscure subroutines in order to create the anti-virus program that saves thousands of people’s Excel spreadsheets, business records and love letters.

Each of these people has sought an altitude of power that allows them this choice: Shall I behave chivalrously, or shall I look out only for my own self-interest? Ambition, competition and desire are not the bane of the Code of Chivalry. The quality of chivalry is defined by how we seek power, and by what we do with it once it’s in our grasp.

© 2004 Jan Chennault

About the Author: Jan Chennault is vice-president of Schuyler House Lab Information Systems, a manufacturer of life-saving software for the health-care industry. She has a BA in Biology, a BS in Medical Technology, ASCP and California Registries, and 17 years of experience as a Medical Technologist.